Books and Brownies

It’s winter – prime reading season, so time for a round up of some of the best books I’ve read over the past few months.  These are best savored with a cup of tea and a brownie…or two…..the kind with lots of icing.

Brownies

As I’m trying to practice an economy of words these days, I have condensed the summaries.   Click on the link for the full publishers blurb.    The list is in descending order of greatness. 

The Family UpstairsThe Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A page-turning jewel of a book, her best yet.

Libby Jones receives a letter from a lawyer on her 25th birthday,  telling her the identity of her birth parents and also that she is the sole inheritor of an abandoned mansion in one of London’s fashionable neighborhoods.  Young and struggling, everything in her life is about to change.   But others have been waiting for this day too.   Twenty-five years ago, police were called to the house with reports of a baby crying.   When they arrived, they found a healthy ten-month-old happily cooing in her crib.  Downstairs in the kitchen lay three dead bodies, all dressed in black, next to a hastily scrawled note, and the four other children reported to live there were gone.

Think your family is dysfunctional?   After reading a Lisa Jewell novel they might seem quite normal by comparison.   I find many of her books disturbing in a creepy psychological way – but this is the most bizarre yet.   There’s definitely an art to weaving a story like that, and she’s mastered it in her latest.        

Someone We Know

Someone We Know by Shari Lapena

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

                                                                                                                   

                                                                                                                     

“This is a very difficult letter to write. I hope you will not hate us too much. . . My son broke into your home recently while you were out.”   In a quiet, leafy suburb in upstate New York, a teenager has been sneaking into houses–and into the owners’ computers as well–learning their secrets, and maybe sharing some of them, too.   Who is he, and what might he have uncovered? After two anonymous letters are received, whispers start to circulate, and suspicion mounts. And when a woman down the street is found murdered, the tension reaches the breaking point. Who killed her? Who knows more than they’re telling? And how far will all these very nice people go to protect their own secrets?

While this is obviously one of those you can’t trust anybody tales, Shari Lapena takes a simple premise, a snooping teenage hacker, and gives it enough twists and turns to make it an entertaining ride.   Having read all of her previous bestsellers (An Unwanted Guest, A Stranger in the House, and The Couple Next Door, I expected this to be good, and it was.   She used to be  a Toronto lawyer – I hope she never returns to practicing law.  

If You Knew HerIf You Knew Her by Emily Elgar

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Emily Edgar is a new author and I hope this is the first of many.

                                                                                                                         

The perfect life, or the perfect lie?   Cassie had it all – the fairytale wedding, the stunning home, the perfect husband. But when she arrives on the intensive care ward in a coma it soon becomes clear that she has a secret.   Alice, the chief nurse on the ward begins to feel a connection with Cassie and can’t help but wonder if things are not quite as they seem.  Frank, another patient, can hear and see everything around him but cannot communicate. He understands that Cassie’s life is in danger and only he holds the truth, which no one can know and he cannot tell.

A first time author, Emily Elgar has another one coming out in 2020, Grace is Gone.  She wrote this book after taking a novel-writing course at the Faber Academy UK in 2014.   I enjoyed the medical background, although I did guess the ending.   Still, A for effort and for getting published in 37 countries.  A very auspicious beginning – I enjoyed it so much I ordered her new one.  

Grace is GoneGrace is Gone by Emily Elgar

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Meg and her daughter Grace are the most beloved family in Ashford, so when Meg is found brutally murdered and her daughter Grace missing, the town is rocked by the tragedy.   Who would kidnap a sick teenager? Who would murder a mother who sacrificed everything?    As the community come to terms with what’s happened, an unlikely pair start searching for answers: Jon, the most hated journalist in Ashford and Cara, the young woman who found Meg’s body. But once they start digging into the past, they will soon realize there’s no going back.

Her second book is even better, much more layered and complex.  In the jacket photo she looks about twelve, but is married and just had a baby so she must be older.   I hope she finds a good babysitter and continues to write.      

I’m wondering why all these psychological thrillers only have three or four words in the title?    I guess they’re trying to sum up the book in the fewest words possible.  

The Shape of FamilyThe Shape of Family by Shilpi Somaya Gowda

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

From the international bestselling author of Secret Daughter and The Golden Son comes a poignant, unforgettable novel about an intercultural couple facing a family crisis.   Jaya, the cultured daughter of an Indian diplomat and Keith, an ambitious banker from middle-class Philadelphia, meet in a London pub in 1988 and make a life together in suburban California. Their strong marriage is built on shared beliefs and love for their two children: headstrong teenager Karina and young son Prem, the light of their home.    But love and prosperity cannot protect them from sudden, unspeakable tragedy, and the family’s foundation cracks as each member struggles to seek a way forward. Jaya finds solace in spirituality. Keith wagers on his high-powered career. Karina focuses relentlessly on her future and independence. And Prem watches helplessly as his once close-knit family drifts apart.

A family drama about an intercultural couple, and while it might sound predictable, it’s not.   It’s also immensely readable.

The GuardiansThe Guardians by John Grisham

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In the small north Florida town of Seabrook, a young lawyer named Keith Russo was shot dead at his desk as he worked late one night. The killer left no clues behind. There were no witnesses, no real suspects, no one with a motive. The police soon settled on Quincy Miller, a young black man who was once a client of Russo’s.  Quincy was framed, convicted, and sent to prison for life. For twenty-two years he languished in prison with no lawyer, no advocate on the outside. Then he wrote a letter to Guardian Ministries, a small innocence group founded by a lawyer/minister named Cullen Post.   Guardian handles only a few innocence cases at a time, and Post is its only investigator. He travels the South fighting wrongful convictions and taking cases no one else will touch. With Quincy Miller, though, he gets far more than he bargained for.

One of his better legal thrillers, but his books often make me wonder about  the US justice system, especially in small sleepy southern towns. 

Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don't Know

Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know by Malcolm Gladwell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
How did Fidel Castro fool the CIA for a generation? Why did Neville Chamberlain think he could trust Adolf Hitler? Why are campus sexual assaults on the rise? Do television sitcoms teach us something about the way we relate to each other that isn’t true?   Gladwell also revisits the deceptions of Bernie Madoff, the trial of Amanda Knox, and the suicide of Sylvia Plath.   While tackling all these questions, Malcolm Gladwell (The Tippling Point, Outliers), discusses the tools and strategies we use to make sense of people we don’t know. And because we don’t know how to talk to strangers, we are inviting conflict and misunderstanding in ways that have a profound effect on our lives and our world.

This book was such a mish-mash of seemingly unrelated chapters, including the bizarre one on Sylvia Plath, that I was left wondering – what was the point of it all.   Unlike his previous books (Outliers, The Tipping Point), it didn’t seem to have a cohesive theme.    I’m not sure what the type of gas stove sold in Britain in the 1960’s has to to with talking to strangers, but maybe anything related to Sylvia Plath sells.   Why not a chapter about Jane Austen’s romances, or a Bookshop in Paris?  (All references guaranteed to sell a book no matter what).   While it could have used more editing, it was an interesting read anyway, and helped to pass the time (6 hours) in the ER dept with a sick family member.   Sometimes that’s the best thing about a good non-fiction book –  you can read a chapter here or there, no need to stay up late to see what happens next.   

I hope you have enjoyed my winter selections, but you’re on your own for the brownies!   Have you read any good books lately?     (1500 words – most of them not mine)

  

The Literary Salon – Beach Books Summer 2019

Beach umbrella

What makes a great beach book – any book with summer in the title.   Here’s my summer reading list (four read, two to go), and although only two of my selections qualify with respect to the title, they are all beach-worthy in one way or another.   

First place, as always, goes to Elin Hilderbrand’s annual summer release, Summer of 69.  

Summer of 69

Publisher’s Blurb:  Follow New York Times bestselling author Elin Hilderbrand back in time and join a Nantucket family as they experience the drama, intrigue, and upheaval of a 1960s summer.   Welcome to the most tumultuous summer of the twentieth century. It’s 1969, and for the Levin family, the times they are a-changing. Every year the children have looked forward to spending the summer at their grandmother’s historic home in downtown Nantucket. But like so much else in America, nothing is the same: Blair, the oldest sister, is marooned in Boston, pregnant with twins and unable to travel. Middle sister Kirby, caught up in the thrilling vortex of civil rights protests and determined to be independent, takes a summer job on Martha’s Vineyard. Only-son Tiger is an infantry soldier, recently deployed to Vietnam. Thirteen-year-old Jessie suddenly feels like an only child, marooned in the house with her out-of-touch grandmother and her worried mother, each of them hiding a troubling secret. As the summer heats up, Ted Kennedy sinks a car in Chappaquiddick, man flies to the moon, and Jessie and her family experience their own dramatic upheavals along with the rest of the country.   In her first “historical novel,” rich with the details of an era that shaped both a country and an island thirty miles out to sea, Elin Hilderbrand once again proves her title as queen of the summer novel.

Why I liked it:    Her usual fare, but anyone who lived through the summer of 1969 (sorry millennials), will find this book especially appealing.   I was the same age as Jesse the youngest of the siblings, so I could really relate to the story line, the fashions and the music.    I especially liked how she incorporated songs of the era as chapter titles. 

“For What It’s Worth” I think we had better songs back then.   I’d like to “Get Back” to that year on “A Magic Carpet Ride” as “Those Were the Days” my friend.   I was a “Young Girl” in ’69, a year when “Everybody’s Talking” about “Fly Me To The Moon”, that distant orb in the sky which was “A Whiter Shade of Pale”.    It was the “Time of the Season” for love and as we were “Born to be Wild” we were full of “Midnight Confessions”.   We didn’t need “Help” from “Mother’s Little Helper” or “White Rabbits” or have the “Summertime Blues” as it was a time of peace and hope.   For all it’s protests it was also a time of optimistic change, as politically “Everyday People” who had “Heard It Through The Grapevine” (as opposed to CNN or Fox), did not have “Suspicious Minds” and could look at issues “From Both Sides Now”.    Perhaps, “Someday We’ll Be Together” again, hopefully “More Today than Yesterday.”     Whew – I got them all in!   (How many do you remember?)

Instead of flying to the moon, let’s fly to Paris – One Summer in Paris – by Sarah Morgan

One Summer in Paris

Publishers Blurb:  To celebrate their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, Grace has planned the surprise of a lifetime for her husband—a romantic getaway to Paris. But she never expected he’d have a surprise of his own: he wants a divorce. Reeling from the shock but refusing to be broken, a devastated Grace makes the bold decision to go to Paris alone.  Audrey, a young woman from London, has left behind a heartache of her own when she arrives in Paris. A job in a bookshop is her ticket to freedom, but with no money and no knowledge of the French language, suddenly a summer spent wandering the cobbled streets alone seems much more likely…until she meets Grace, and everything changes.   Grace can’t believe how daring Audrey is. Audrey can’t believe how cautious newly single Grace is.  Living in neighboring apartments above the bookshop, this unlikely pair offer each other just what they’ve both been missing. They came to Paris to find themselves, but finding this unbreakable friendship might be the best thing that’s ever happened to them…

Why I liked it:   I’m not a big fan of romance fiction, but was attracted by the title and the book jacket.    I’ve never been to Paris, the story line sounded promising and it had a bookstore in it.   Basically this book was pure fluff, albeit readable fluff.   I don’t think I’ll be reading anything more by this author, as she is traditionally a romance writer and it was a bit too predictable for me.   Plus there was actually very little about Paris or the bookstore in it, which just goes to show how we can get sucked in by marketing.     (I swear if I ever write my murder mystery I’m going to call it Murder at the Paris Bookshop even though it’s set in another country – guaranteed sales – but perhaps that title has already been taken?)    

Did I mention I’m a sucker for any title with a bookstore in it, so No. 3 is The Bookstore on the Corner – by Jenny Colgan.   

The Bookshop on the Corner

Publishers Blurb:   Nina Redmond is a literary matchmaker. Pairing a reader with that perfect book is her passion… and also her job. Or at least it was. Until yesterday, she was a librarian in the hectic city. But now the job she loved is no more.  Determined to make a new life for herself, Nina moves to a sleepy village many miles away. There she buys a van and transforms it into a bookmobile—a mobile bookshop that she drives from neighborhood to neighborhood, changing one life after another with the power of storytelling From helping her grumpy landlord deliver a lamb, to sharing picnics with a charming train conductor who serenades her with poetry, Nina discovers there’s plenty of adventure, magic, and soul in a place that’s beginning to feel like home… a place where she just might be able to write her own happy ending.

Why I liked it:    I haven’t read it yet, but with a bookstore, how could it fail?  (I’m reserving judgement, see above).   (Edited to add:  Two chapters in and I’m loving this book – the main character, the humorous style of writing, the Scottish locale, it’s simply charming, and there are actual books in it!)  (Note after finishing:  I’m quite disappointed – two thirds of the way through this book turned into a Hallmark movie.   It was all down hill after the scene with Mr. Darcy wearing a kilt and carrying an injured lamb…..well those were actually two separate scenes but you get the drift….really I m much too old for this romance stuff.  Where is Jane Austen when you need her!)   

It’s summer concert season.   Let’s go back in time again, this time to the 70’s.  Based loosely on the rock group Fleetwood Mac, Daisy Jones and the Six – by Taylor Jenkins Reid was a selection of Reese Witherspoon’s book club.    I can already see the movie being made….now who will play the lead singers?

Daisy Jones and The Six

Publisher’s Blurb:  Everyone knows Daisy Jones & The Six, but nobody knows the reason behind their split at the absolute height of their popularity . . . until now.
Daisy is a girl coming of age in L.A. in the late sixties, sneaking into clubs on the Sunset Strip, sleeping with rock stars, and dreaming of singing at the Whisky a Go Go. The sex and drugs are thrilling, but it’s the rock and roll she loves most. By the time she’s twenty, her voice is getting noticed, and she has the kind of heedless beauty that makes people do crazy things.  Also getting noticed is The Six, a band led by the brooding Billy Dunne. On the eve of their first tour, his girlfriend Camila finds out she’s pregnant, and with the pressure of impending fatherhood and fame, Billy goes a little wild on the road.   Daisy and Billy cross paths when a producer realizes that the key to supercharged success is to put the two together. What happens next will become the stuff of legend.   The making of that legend is chronicled in this riveting and unforgettable novel, written as an oral history of one of the biggest bands of the seventies. Taylor Jenkins Reid is a talented writer who takes her work to a new level with Daisy Jones & The Six, brilliantly capturing a place and time in an utterly distinctive voice.

Why I liked it:  Despite it’s great reviews I wasn’t sure I was going to like this book.   It wasn’t a subject matter that interested me, as I attended a Catholic high school and my recollection of the 70’s was not exactly sex, drugs and rock and roll.    But I ended up loving it – and it’s definitely one of the most memorable books I’ve read this year.  Basically it’s a love story, but not your typical one.   I even liked the unique interview format a la Rolling Stone, which surprisingly readable.  The book is pure fiction but the characters seemed so real that several younger reviewers on Goodreads believed it was a memoir about a real band.   Someone really needs to set those lyrics at the end to music.

Enough of the retro, here’s a psychological thriller to keep you in suspense during those nights when it’s too hot to sleep – The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides

The Silent Patient

Publishers Blurb:  Alicia Berenson’s life is seemingly perfect. A famous painter married to an in-demand fashion photographer, she lives in a grand house with big windows overlooking a park in one of London’s most desirable areas. One evening her husband Gabriel returns home late from a fashion shoot, and Alicia shoots him five times in the face, and then never speaks another word.   Alicia’s refusal to talk, or give any kind of explanation, turns a domestic tragedy into something far grander, a mystery that captures the public imagination and casts Alicia into notoriety. The price of her art skyrockets, and she, the silent patient, is hidden away from the tabloids and spotlight at the Grove, a secure forensic unit in North London.   Theo Faber is a criminal psychotherapist who has waited a long time for the opportunity to work with Alicia. His determination to get her to talk and unravel the mystery of why she shot her husband takes him down a twisting path into his own motivations—a search for the truth that threatens to consume him….

Why I liked it:   I don’t usually like first person narratives, especially by male protagonists,  but this was very well done and overall an excellent book for a first time novelist.    Never even saw the ending coming – I am in awe of the brilliance.  

And lastly, because even the best of summers have to come to an end and real life resumes, a family drama – After the End – by Clare MacIntosh.

After The End

Publisher’s Blurb:  Max and Pip are the strongest couple you know. They’re best friends, lovers—unshakable. But then their son gets sick and the doctors put the question of his survival into their hands. For the first time, Max and Pip can’t agree. They each want a different future for their son.   What if they could have both?  A gripping and propulsive exploration of love, marriage, parenthood, and the road not taken, After the End brings one unforgettable family from unimaginable loss to a surprising, satisfying, and redemptive ending and the life they are fated to find.

Why I liked it:   I haven’t read this one yet either.   I’m saving it for August, but it sounds like a departure from her usual crime suspense novels (I Let You Go, I See You).    We shall see….

There – a little something for everyone under the sun – Happy Reading!    

PS.   What are you reading this summer?

Beach pail

The Literary Salon: The Perfect Couple

Beach Book

We all know them – the perfect couple.  Or are they?   The Perfect Couple is the perfect book for Valentine’s Day, because who doesn’t like to read about relationships, perfect and otherwise.    At the very least, you can escape winter for a few hours  – just keep an eye out for any dead bodies washing up on shore!

The Publisher’s Blurb:

It’s Nantucket wedding season, also known as summer – the sight of a bride racing down Main Street is as common as the sun setting at Madaket Beach. The Otis-Winbury wedding promises to be an event to remember: the groom’s wealthy parents have spared no expense to host a lavish ceremony at their oceanfront estate.

But it’s going to be memorable for all the wrong reasons after tragedy strikes: a body is discovered in Nantucket Harbor just hours before the ceremony-and everyone in the wedding party is suddenly a suspect. As Chief of Police Ed Kapenash interviews the bride, the groom, the groom’s famous mystery-novelist mother, and even a member of his own family, he discovers that every wedding is a minefield-and no couple is perfect. Featuring beloved characters from The Castaways, Beautiful Day, and A Summer Affair, The Perfect Couple proves once again that Elin Hilderbrand is the queen of the summer beach read.

A bit about the Author:

Elin Hilderbrand is a graduate of The Johns Hopkins University and the Iowa Writers Workshop. She has lived on Nantucket for 25 years and is the mother of three teenagers.   The Perfect Couple is her twenty-first novel.

My Goodreads Review:

My Goodreads Review:The Perfect CoupleThe Perfect Couple by Elin Hilderbrand

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Perfect Beach Read. Her best book yet, the usual island fare with the added twist of a murder mystery. After a dead body is found floating in the water the morning of a fancy wedding all the guests and family members are suspects. Intricately plotted, the characters and descriptions are so real you will feel like you just spent a week on Nantucket. If you take this book to the beach you will not look up once it is so engrossing…..I could hardly put it down. I hope she does more murder mysteries…..looking forward to her new winter series.

Discussion:

The first book in my Literary Salon series – An Unwanted Guest – was a study in plot development, just how does one plot a murder mystery?   One of the reasons I chose this second book was for it’s characterizations.  If you have written 21 novels, how do you keep coming up with new characters?  Or are they just cookie-cutter people – change the job, name, appearance?   Her characters are usually flawed beings who make bad choices.  They drink a lot….like fish since we’re going with the water theme.   Sometimes they are so annoying and make such stupid decisions that you feel like abandoning them altogether.   You want the reader to like your characters or at least sympathize with them, not think they are fools.  (Note to self –  make my characters smarter and sober…..no vino for them).    

Elin Hilderbrand is the Queen of Beach Fluff, a genre that is often romance but usually just something lighthearted enough to take to the beach.    She comes out with a big fat beach novel every July, and often a short novella before Christmas.    While I have always enjoyed her books, I had grown a bit weary of the format.   The same old bed-hopping, drinking, even worse drinking while driving, piss-poor parents (her words) whose uncontrollable teenagers are doing the same thing – tale grows stale after awhile, and I admit the books wouldn’t be half as appealing if they weren’t set on the island of Nantucket.   (In much the same way I had tired of Joanna Trollope but her last novel, An Unsuitable Match, about a late in life marriage, was actually quite good – but that’s a whole other topic).    These books are fast food fiction, you already know what you are going to get.   There’s usually plenty of family dynamics and complicated romances all destined to work out (or not) in the end, because hey – it’s beach fluff.   But in this her latest book, you have all of the above, plus she has added a murder mystery and the book seems to have taken on a more serious tone.   She is older now and survived breast cancer in 2014.    I enjoyed the mystery aspect of it, and hope she does more in that vein.    I am currently reading the first of her new winter series, Winter in Paradise – see link, in which a wife loses her husband of 25 years in a helicopter crash in the US Virgin Islands, and finds out he had a whole other life on the island.   (not good – back to trashy again….five drinks on a boat cruise before 10am????)   In the jacket blurb the author says she vacations on St. John’s for five weeks every spring, so she can get big chunks of her writing done in privacy.  (maybe that’s my problem – I need to rent a Caribbean villa with turquoise views).   She does seem to like writing about islands, and the island lifestyle.   She’s certainly been a very successful author financially, and if the format works keep at it, but I can’t help but wish she would tone it down a bit.   But then I probably fall into this category, wherein, Tag the father in law, (who was having an affair with the maid of honor), describes the average reader of his wife’s books.         

‘Her fan base is nearly down to no one but the devoted cat ladies.  Tag is thinking about the devoted cat lady – tucked away in her Cotswold cottage fixing a cup of tea and preparing to spend a rainy afternoon in an armchair with a tabby spread across her lap as she cracks open the latest exotically located Greer Garson mystery.’

In his view, this is a dull life, but it sounds appealing to me and I don’t even own a cat.   But then I am older and her books are pretty much the only romance genre I read.   Although she is a good storyteller, I sometimes find her books are just too trashy.   I would love to see what she does with a theme and characters a little less shallow….and a little less preoccupied with booze and infidelity.   That may seem like an odd thing to criticize as we read escapist fiction to escape, but she is such a good writer that I wish she would tackle some more important stuff, like Jodi Picoult does.   Despite that, The Perfect Couple does have something to say about relationships, both old (how many long term couples stay together for financial reasons despite the affairs) and new, plus a riveting story-line.    If you grew up in the eighties with the Not-Married- Before-Thirty-Terrorist Theory of Love and rom.coms like When Harry Met Sally (doomed IMO, totally incompatible all that arguing) and Sleepless in Seattle (flying all the way across the country to meet someone whose voice you liked on the radio?) then love at first sight may seem perfectly plausible – but do the couple at the end of the book stand a chance?  What do they know about each other?  Yes, there are red flags, but isn’t it all unpredictable anyway – fate is fickle.    Success in love and marriage happens for some people and not others, but hopefully you don’t drown in the process.

Quote of the Day:    “Remember that sometimes not getting what you want, is a wonderful stroke of luck.”   (Dali Lama)  

Song of the Day:  Makin’ Whoopee – because the lyrics are fun